Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Racism and Identity Politics

TAPPED asks about the virtues of and limits to organizing around racial and ethnic identity, and snipply writes "If Atrios would rather complain about how the evil media never, ever cover examples of white racism, that's fine by Tapped."

Look, identity politics and racism are not the same thing. Even "white" identity politics is not necessarily racist in nature, purpose, or impact. I wasn't complaining that the mainstream media fails to cover racism (though we could discuss that), I was complaining about the selective labeling of identity politics.

It's rather odd, actually. We've "defined racism upwards" in this country so much so that the it's a charge the media is never prepared to make. However, they do regularly throw around "identity politics" which is effectively a code-phrase for racism-against-whites. So, minorities who cry "racism" (often legitimately) are chastised for practicing "divisive racial politics" while bowtied blowhards babble on about "divisive identity politics" with impunity.

Racism can be the basis of identity politics, but it need not be. Simply because racial/ethnic groups have commonalities does not necessitate or imply racial exclusion. Despite the use of the word "Raza," anyone with a lick of understanding about contemporary Latino identity understands that it, and therefore groups like MEChA, encompass every race, color, and creed.

One would hope for a day when any notions of ethnicity and culture are distinct from race. But, given continued immigration by people of color, the historic treatment of African-Americans, Asians, and others, as well as the continuation of racial segregation in this country, and of course the current practice of racial exclusion-based identity politics by whites, means that day isn't coming anytime soon.

We live in a country where the white-dominated major media trumpeted the racist propaganda (to call it pseudo-science gives pseudo-science a bad name) of The Bell Curve, where the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was a polling place thug, where the Attorney General praises the explicitly racist neo-Confederate Southern Partisan magazine, where a "respectable" (by Republicans, anyway) newspaper is run and staffed by confederate bigots who advocate southern secession, where the president can mark Martin Luther King's birthday by explicitly lying about the Michigan affirmative action program, when a star journalist on a major news network can joke that the Democrats should rap at the CBC debate without public notice or sanction, etc... etc... For some racial groups, there is no choice but to use racial identity as an organizing principle. After all, racial identity has been used as an organizing principle for years - organizing *against* them.

At heart, I suppose, TAPPED is asking a practical question - does scary divisive "identity politics" keep white voters away from voting for Democrats? Probably. Every time some media person, as someone on CNN did yesterday (Bob Franken?), says something like "African-Americans are by far the most important demographic group for Democrats," which is either completely meaningless or completely incorrect, white voters get scared away from Democrats. Every time someone like Bill Schneider engages in a bit of racial demagoguery by stating that without the black vote the Democrats would "a hopeless minority," white voters get scared away from voting for Democrats.

But, on the other hand, every time a bunch of white Democrats start telling Black and Latino voters not to get too uppity, and definitely don't get too uppity as a group, they get scared away from voting for Democrats too. If blacks and Latinos are to have political power, they have little choice but too organize and little option but to organize as the groups they've been placed in by our society. As I said, one would hope that ethnic and cultural identity, and interest group politics, would eventually have nothing to do with race. But, hey, it does.

...one more thing. As PG points out in comments, minorities are not monolithic Democratic voting blocks. Oddly, though, the issue of identity politics is only raised in the context of liberal and Democratic politics. If Bush is "courting the Hispanic vote" or "courting the Black vote" or Grover Norquist is "courting the Muslim and Arab American vote," it isn't viewed that way.